And then I met Gage. He was a full head taller than his father, black haired and big framed and lean. He was about thirty, but he had a seasoned look that could have allowed him to pass for someone older. He rationed out a perfunctory smile as if he didn't have many to spare. There were two things people immediately comprehended about Gage Travis. First, he wasn't the kind who laughed easily. And second, despite his privileged upbringing, he
was a tough son of a bitch. A kennel-bred, pedigreed pit bull.
He introduced himself, reaching out to shake my hand.
His eyes were an unusually pale gray, brilliant and black needled. Those eyes allowed a flash of the volatility contained beneath his quiet facade, a sense of tautly restrained energy I had only seen once before, in Hardy. Except Hardy's charisma had been an invitation to draw closer, whereas this man's was a warning to stay back. I was so shaken by him, I had a hard time taking his hand.
"Liberty," I said faintly. My fingers were swallowed in his. A light, burning clasp, and he released me as quickly as possible.
I turned away blindly, wanting to look anywhere other than into those unsettling eyes, and I discovered a woman sitting on a nearby love seat.
She was a beautiful tall waif with a delicate face and puffy pneumatic lips, and a river of highlighted blond hair that streamed down her shoulders and over the arm of the sofa. Churchill had told me Gage was dating a model, and I had no doubt this was her. The woman's arms, no bigger around than Q-tips stems, hung straight from their sockets, and her hipbones protruded beneath her clothes like can-opener blades. Had she been anyone other than a model, she would have been rushed to a clinic for eating disorders.
I have never worried about my weight, which has always been normal. I have a good figure, a woman's shape with a woman's br**sts and hips, and probably more of a rear end than I would have wished for. I look good in the right clothes, not so good in the wrong ones. Overall I like my body just fine. But next to this spindly creature I felt like a prizewinning Holstein.
"Hi," I said, forcing a smile as her gaze swept me up and down. "I'm Liberty Jones. I'm...a friend of Churchill's."
She gave me a disdainful glance and didn't bother introducing herself.
I thought of the years of deprivation and hunger it would require to maintain such thinnness. No ice cream, no barbecue, never a wedge of lemon pie or a fried chile relleno pepper stuffed with melting white cheese. It would turn anyone mean.
Jack broke in quickly. "So where you from, Liberty'?"
"I..." I cast a quick glance at Carrington, who was examining a panel of buttons on Churchill's wheelchair. "Don't push any of those, Carrington." I had a sudden cartoonish vision of her triggering a catapult device in the seat cushion.
"I'm not," my sister protested. "I'm just looking."
I returned my attention to Jack. "We live in Houston, near the salon."
"What salon?" Jack asked with an encouraging smile.
"Salon One. Where I work." A short but discomforting silence followed, as if there were nothing anyone could think of to say or ask about a salon job. I was compelled to throw words into the void. "Before Houston, we lived in Welcome."
"I think I've heard of Welcome," Jack said. "Although I can't remember how or why."
"It's just a regular little town," I said. "Got one of everything."
"What do you mean?"
I shrugged awkwardly. "One shoe store, one Mexican restaurant, one dry cleaner's..."
These people were used to conversation with their own kind, about people and places and things I had no experience with. I felt like a nobody. Suddenly I was annoyed with Churchill for putting me in this situation, among people who were going to make fun of me the minute I left the room. I tried to keep my mouth shut, but as another mesh of silence settled. I couldn't stop myself from breaking through it.
I looked at Gage Travis again. "You work with your dad, right?" I tried to remember what Churchill had said, that although Gage had a hand in the family investment business, he had also started his own company that developed alternative energy technologies.
"It looks like I'll be stepping in to do Dad's traveling for a while," Gage said. "He was scheduled to speak at a conference in Tokyo next week. I'll be going instead." All lacquered politeness, no hint of a smile.
"When you make a speech for Churchill." I asked, "do you say exactly what he would have said?"
"We don't always share the same opinions."
"That means no, then."
"That means no," he said softly. As he continued to stare at me. I was surprised by a mild, not unpleasant squirming sensation in my abdomen. My face turned hot.
"Do you like to travel?" I asked.
"I've gotten tired of it, actually. What about you?"
"I don't know. I've never been outside the state."
I didn't think it was such a weird thing to say. but the three of them looked at me like I had two heads.
"Churchill hasn't taken you anywhere?" the woman on the love seat asked, toying with a lock of her own hair. "Doesn't he want to be seen with you?" She smiled as if she were making a joke. Her tone could have stripped the fuzz off a kiwi.
"Gage is a homebody." Jack told me. "The rest of the Travises have a big dose of wanderlust."
"But Gage does like Paris," the woman commented, giving him an arch glance. "That's where we met. I was doing the cover for French Vogue."
I tried to look impressed. "I'm sorry. I didn't catch your name."
"Dawnelle..." I repeated, waiting for her last name.
"She's just been chosen for a big national ad campaign." Jack told me. "A major cosmetics company is launching a new perfume."
"Fragrance," Dawnelle corrected. "It's called Taunt."
"I'm sure you'll do a great job." I said.
After drinks we had dinner in an oval-shaped dining room with a two-story ceiling and a chandelier with crystals hanging down like strands of raindrops. The arched doorway on one side of the dining room led to the kitchen, while the one on the other side featured a wrought-iron gate. Churchill told me there was a dine-in wine cellar beyond the gate, with a collection of about ten thousand bottles. Heavy chairs upholstered in olive velvet were pulled up to a mahogany table.
The housekeeper and a young Hispanic woman poured inky red wine into large-bowled glasses and brought a flute filled with Seven-Up for Carrington. My sister sat at Churchill's left, and I took her other side. I reminded her in a whisper to put her napkin on her lap and not to set her glass so close to the edge of the table. She behaved beautifully, remembering her pleases and thank-yous.
There was only one worrisome moment when the plates were brought out and I was unable to identify their contents. My sister, although not a picky eater, did not have what anyone would call an adventurous palate.
"What is this stuff?" Carrington whispered, staring dubiously at the collection of strips and balls and chunks on her plate.
"It's meat," I said out of the side of my mouth.
"What kind of meat?" she persisted, poking at one of the balls with the tines of her fork.
"I don't know. Just eat it."
By this time Churchill had noticed Carrington's frown. "What's the matter?" he asked.
Carrington pointed to her plate with her fork. "I'm not gonna eat something if I don't know what it is."
Churchill, Gretchen, and Jack laughed, while Gage regarded us without expression. Dawnelle was in the process of explaining to the housekeeper that she wanted her food taken back to the kitchen and weighed carefully. Three ounces of meat was all she wanted.
"That's a good rule," Churchill said to Carrington. He told her to move her plate closer to his. "All this stuff is what they call mixed grill. Look here—these little things are venison strips. This is elk, and those are moose meatballs, and that's wild turkey sausage." Glancing up at me, he added, "No emu," and winked.
"It's like eating a whole episode of Wild Kingdom," I said, entertained by the sight of Churchill trying to talk a reluctant eight-year-old into something.
"I don't like elk," Carrington told him.
"You can't be sure of that until you try some. Go on, take a bite."
Obediently Carrington ate some of the foreign meat, along with some baby vegetables and roasted potatoes. Baskets of bread were passed around, containing rolls and steaming squares of cornbread. To my consternation, I saw Carrington digging through one of the baskets. "Baby, don't do that," I murmured. "Just take the top piece."
"I want the regular kind." she complained.
I looked at Churchill apologetically. "I usually make our cornbread in a skillet."
"How about that." He grinned at Jack. "That's the way your mama used to make it. wasn't it?"
"Yes, sir," Jack said with a reminiscent smile. "I'd crumble it hot into a glass of milk.. .man, that was good eating."
"Liberty makes the best cornbread," Carrington said earnestly. "You should ask her to make it for you sometime, Uncle Churchill."
Out the corner of my eye, I saw Gage stiffen at the word "uncle."
"I think I just might," Churchill said, giving me a fond smile.
After dinner, Churchill took us on a tour through the mansion, despite my protestations that he must be tired. The others went to a sitting room for coffee, while Churchill, Carrington. and I went off by ourselves.
Our host maneuvered the wheelchair in and out of the elevator, along the hallways, pausing at the doorways of certain rooms he wanted us to see. Ava had decorated the whole place by herself, he said with pride. She had liked European styles, French things, choosing antique pieces with visible wear and tear to balance elegance with comfort.
We peered into bedrooms with their own little balconies, and windows made of diamond-cut glass. Some of the rooms had been decorated like a rustic chateau, the walls aged with hand-sponged glaze, the ceilings crossed with hammerhead beams. There was a librar\'. an exercise room with a sauna and a racquetball court, a music room with furniture upholstered in cream velvet, a theater room with a TV screen that covered an entire wall. There was an indoor pool and an outdoor pool, the latter centered in a landscaped area with a pavilion, a summer kitchen, covered decks, and an outdoor fireplace.
Churchill turned his charm up to full wattage. Several times the crafty old scoundrel gave me a meaningful glance, like when Carrington ran to the Steinway and plunked a few experimental notes, or when she got excited at the sight of the negative-edge pool. She could have this all the time, was his unspoken subtext. You're the only one keeping it from her. And he laughed when I scowled at him.
His point had been made, however. And there was something else I noticed, something he might not have been fully aware of. I was struck by the way they interacted, the natural ease between them. The small girl with no father or grandfather. The old man who hadn't spent enough time with his own children when they were young. He regretted that, he had told me. Being Churchill, he couldn't have taken any other road. But now that he'd finally gotten to where he'd wanted to go. he could look back and see the distant landmarks of what he'd missed.
I was troubled for both their sakes. I had a lot to think about.
When we were sufficiently dazzled and Churchill had begun to tire, we went to join the others. Seeing the grayish tint of his face, I checked my watch. "It's time for more Vicodin." I murmured. "I'll run up to your room to get it."
He nodded, his jaw set against the oncoming ache. Some kinds of pain you have to
catch before it starts, or you never quite get the better of it.
"I'll go with you," Gage said, rising from his chair. "You may not remember the way."
Even though his tone was pleasant, the words bit through the comfortable feeling I'd gotten from being with Churchill.
"Thanks," I said warily, "but I can find it."
He wouldn't back off. "I'll start you off. It's easy to get lost in this place."
"Thanks," I said. "That's real nice of you."
But as we walked together out of the living room. I knew what was coming. He had something to say to me, and it wasn't going to be remotely nice. When we reached the foot of the stairs, reasonably out of earshot of the others, Gage stopped and turned me to face him. His touch made me freeze.
"Look," he said curtly, "I don't give a damn if you're banging the old man. That's not my business."
"You're right," I said.
"But I draw the line when you bring it into this house."
"It's not your house."
"He built it for my mother. This is where the family gets together, where we spend holidays." He looked at me with contempt. "You're on dangerous ground. You set foot on this property again and I'll personally throw you out on your ass. Understand?"
I understood. But I didn't flinch or step back. I had learned a long time ago not to run from pit bulls.
I went from crimson to skull-white. The rush of my blood seemed to scald the insides of my veins. He knew nothing about me, this arrogant bastard, knew nothing about the choices I'd made or the things I'd given up and all the easy ways out I could have taken but didn't. didn 't, and he was such a complete and unredeemable as**ole that if he'd suddenly caught on fire, I wouldn't have bothered to spit on him.
"Your father needs his medicine," I said, stone-faced.
His eyes narrowed. I tried to hold his gaze but I couldn't, the day's events had drawn my emotions too close to the surface. So I stared at a distant point across the room and concentrated on showing nothing, feeling nothing. After an unbearably long time I heard him say, "This better be the last time I lay eyes on you."
"Go to hell," I said, and went upstairs at a measured pace, while my instincts urged me to bolt like a jackrabbit.
I had another private conversation that evening, with Churchill. Jack had long since departed, and mercifully so had Gage, to take his size-zero girlfriend home. Gretchen showed Carrington her collection of antique cast-iron banks, one shaped like Humpty-Dumpty. another like a cow whose back legs kicked a fanner when you dropped a coin in. While they played on the other side of the room, I sat on an ottoman beside
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